New album: “…As It Goes”, and some thoughts on FAWM 2017

Without further preamble or ado… here is the Bandcamp release of my songs and compositions for FAWM 2017:

“…As It Goes: Songs From FAWM 2017” collects the 14 pieces I composed and recorded for this, the fifth FAWM challenge I have entered (and the fourth I completed, after 2015’s enforced dropping-out). How did I feel it went this year?

Well, as always, the frantic nature of the challenge—having to write and record a new piece on average every 48 hours, for the four weeks of February, means that one does not have the luxury of dismissing that many ideas when they land in your mind! This usually means that my FAWM output is usually almost crazily diverse, and 2017 tended to follow that pattern:

  • “Rockers” (“Through The Looking Glass”, “Friday Night”, “16 Valentine’s Days”);
  • mid-tempo acoustic-style (“As It Goes”, “Serves Me Right”, “Fading Day”);
  • electropop (“One Way Street”, “The Container Ship”);
  • solo guitar songs (“It Was Enough For Us”, “Philosophical Moment”);
  • ukulele pop (“Time To Dream”, “Going Round The Tearooms”); and
  • instrumentals (“Hide The Lute”, “Figure 8”)

On the technical front, this was the first collection of songs which I have recorded entirely on an iPhone (6S). I have used iPhone and iPad (and, when I started doing so in 2011–12, on an iPod Touch) for a lot of my recording since 2012, but for FAWM 2017 I only used our Logic-based Mac home studio for mixing the material from the iPhone.

The only new instruments I brought in this time around, were my Risa Solid electric tenor ukulele (which I wrote and recorded a few tracks with) and a Meinl Travel Cajon (you can hear this on “Friday Night”). I thought I would introduce more “electronica”/electropop into my pieces this time around, but I found I just didn’t have time to experiment, due to FAWM’s relentless pace. I did, however, put together two songs using Caustic, an electronic music-production app which I hope to make more use of for a near-future new project.

How do I feel about FAWM 2017 itself, now I can look back having completed it?

Well: this time felt… tough. Frankly, a real slog at times, and I came close more than once to just dropping out. I didn’t have a problem with anyone except myself—my energy levels and overall “verve” were low-to-vapour, and quite often I just wanted to run away somewhere and sleep for half the month. Paradoxically, I am actually quite pleased with my output this FAWM—perhaps slightly down on what I feel was the “high-water mark” of 2016, with a couple of perhaps-less-than-totally-inspired items, but overall not too bad at all.

Anyway: here’s FAWM 2017, “…As It Goes”. Hope you enjoy it!


FAWM 2017 is go!

A very quick post to let you know (if you haven’t picked it up from my other “outlets”) that FAWM (February Album Writing Month) 2017 is now underway. If you’re wondering how on earth someone can write and record, from scratch, 14 songs in the 28 days of February…

…well, you can keep track of my progress on my FAWM “artist page”, and you can follow my progress via my Twitter feed (where I’ll post notifications of my new uploads within seconds of them going live).

Must go… I’ve got the second song to write! (And here’s the first: “Through The Looking Glass”. See you along the way 🙂 )

New album: “Catherine Wheel”

A few days ago, I completed my third “run” at the annual NaSoAlMo (National Solo Album Month) songwriting/recording challenge, and here is the collective fruit-basket of my labours…

“Catherine Wheel” sees me have a go at producing some songs in a stripped-down, largely acoustic guitar-based approach. I had in mind, something along the lines of “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake and “Roman Candle” by Elliott Smith, but for all sorts of reasons I think this album came out a bit differently!

You may notice some variety in the sound between songs, as a result of me experimenting with microphone placement and the like (and also due to me mixing the songs as I went along). I suppose a bit of the old “spice of life” doesn’t hurt…?

Anyway, “Catherine Wheel” is a “name your price” download from my Bandcamp page (and yes, the price can be zero if you’re having one of those “tight” months). Upon purchase, you should get the option to download a CD inlay in PDF format, if you would find this of use and/or interest.

I’ll be adding a page on this album to the “My Music” section, at some stage in the future when I can get around to penning a note or two about how I made it all. In the meantime: hope you enjoy this little firework 🙂

(Update (Dec 2016): The “My Music” page for “Catherine Wheel” is now up, with a few more notes regarding the album and its making.)

Gearing up for NaSoAlMo 2016

On 1st November, barely a few days away, I’ll be starting my participation in National Solo Album Month (NaSoAlMo) 2015.

For those who haven’t encountered it before, the aim of the challenge is to compose and record at least 28 minutes of musical material (songs, instrumentals, whatever), entirely within the month of November. It’s entirely possible, and this is my third year of participation: 2014 saw me produce “Moquettes” (under the band-pseudonym The Pattern Store), whilst my 2015 demos are currently on Soundcloud (as “Phone Home”).

With only a weekend to go until the 2016 challenge begins, I admit I find myself in a real quandary about how I should approach it. I have two possible “paths” I am thinking of taking:

  • A stripped-down, largely acoustic guitar-based set, along the lines of “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake, or “Roman Candle” by Elliott Smith (except without the substance references and most of the angst); or
  • a set of “electronica”-oriented songs, founded on “groovebox” apps such as Figure and FunkBox—partly inspired by Ben Kronberg’s Internet-only album “Just Songs”.

Both have their pros and cons, and I have been swinging on an almost daily basis between them! Whichever “route” I end up taking, I think I would keep the other “in reserve” for a future project, as I really want to have a go at both creative paths at some point.

In short: I still haven’t decided which approach to take… so I’m going to see how things go when I reach November. It’s not inconceivable that I’ll end up mixing the two—I’m no stranger to “guitars with electronica” in my past work!—so I’m going to take a hold of myself and stop agonising over the question, and just “get on with it”…

So, to keep up with my NaSoAlMo progress, you can either follow my Twitter feed or my Facebook “artist” page, as I’ll be posting updates to both along the way. Hope you’ll join me… see you cheering by the roadside?

Reflections on FAWM 2016

If you follow my Twitter feed (and/or my other social-media outlets), and have a slightly lengthy memory (sorry, I’ve had a lot on…) you will probably be aware that during February I participated in FAWM (February Album Writing Month).

For the uninitiated, this is an Internet “challenge” where hundreds of intrepid musicians, composers and lyricists set out to write and record, from scratch, 14 songs in 28 days. It sounds either crazy or impossible (or both!), but it can be done: as long as you accept that you’re highly unlikely to pen 14 masterpieces, FAWM can be an exhilarating and satisfying experience, and can lead participants to write material that otherwise might well not exist.

2016 was my fourth FAWM (if you count 2015, which I bailed out of after two songs due to particularly pressing family commitments), and you can hear the outputs from 2013 and 2014 as the albums “Homecooked” and “Conditions Apply”, at my Bandcamp page.

And now… I can add “Blackbirds Banquet: Songs From FAWM 2016” to that list!

To cut a long story short: 2016 was, I feel, my most “successful” FAWM yet. In composition terms, as in previous challenges, my creations run a pretty wide gamut of musical styles:

  • Power-pop/rock (“The 90s Called”, “Turnaround”);
  • 50s/60s-flavoured (“Lunchtime”, “So It’s Friday”)
  • Instrumentals (“62nd Street”, “Seventh Planet”, “Snow Moon Waltz”, “Father Time Reflects”);
  • Guitar-based singer-songwriter-type material (“Where Letters Keep”, “Odd Love Song”, “Running On The Spot”);
  • Americana (“Helmsman”);
  • Synthpop (“Outside The Space”);
  • Spoof vintage “music-hall” (“Going To The Tearooms”)!

There are a couple of differences this year, it seems to me. I think the studio-recording/engineering course I went on last autumn has really helped my recording, especially on the mixing side of things. This may be clearest with the rockier and up-tempo songs; “The 90s Called” and “Turnaround” are probably the hardest I’ve “rocked” in my recording “career”, and I feel I was able to beef up the overall sound with these songs, better than I could have done before.

Moreover, this FAWM has seen me produce no less than four instrumentals, the most I’ve contributed since starting the challenge in 2013. I always include a couple of wordless pieces in these projects, but I basically found lyric-writing pretty difficult this year (although I’m generally happy with what I did write).

In recording terms, this FAWM has been less reliant (at least in terms of sound) on electronica, with more emphasis on perhaps more “conventional” instrumentation. This is partly misleading: I actually made increased use of the GarageBand app for iPad, particularly driven by the addition of the Drummer feature (migrated from Logic Pro X), which can be heard on five of the songs. Two of these tracks began life on Apple’s new Music Memos app, which auto-creates drums and bass parts from what you play into the app. The musical styles may appear less electronic, but there is plenty of technology behind the scenes!

There’s also been an upgrade on the recording-hardware front: at the start of this FAWM, I acquired a Line6 Sonic Port VX, a combined recording-interface and condenser-microphone “package”.With the exception of the odd overdub on the Mac, the audio-recording was done on iPad and iPhone via the VX, making this my first FAWM to be recorded at least partly at 24-bit quality. (On iDevices, I’m not sure GarageBand can record 24-bit, but the songs I laid down in Multitrack DAW and Audioshare were set that way.)

So yes, overall I feel this has turned out to be my most “successful” FAWM yet, both in terms of composition and recording. Perhaps I “flagged” a bit in the last quarter or so, but even then I think the quality more or less held up.

I hope you can judge for yourselves – “Blackbirds Banquet” is now available for purchase and download from Bandcamp. This time, I can say unreservedly: I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it!

FAWM 2015: on your (my?) marks…

A quick-ish note (by my standards), to let you know that I’ve decided (after a bit of humming and haw-ing) to take part in another FAWM (February Album Writing Month) 2015.

This will be the third year I have participated in this Internet challenge, which (for the uninitiated) involves writing and recording—from scratch—14 songs in 28 days. I’ve written about my previous years’ endeavours before, but suffice it to say: such a “Herculean” task is quite possible to achieve. You have to learn to “drop your shields”—i.e. to “run with” ideas you wouldn’t normally try—and to be prepared for the possibility (or even probability) that you may write something not up to your usual standards.

As it happens, my song output from FAWM in 2013 and 2014 was, if I’m honest, a little variable, but I feel at least some of the material I wrote was decent, or in a few cases, some of the best pieces I’ve come up with. A couple of my FAWM 2014 songs will feature—slightly re-worked— on an album I have nearly completed work on, which I hope to put out in some form during 2015. Watch this space…

So: FAWM 2015—what of it? Well, it kicks off tomorrow (1st Feb), and I know this: I’m going in completely “dry” (no ideas what to start with, etc.); and I’ve decided to limit myself to only using guitars and other fretted instruments—no sequencers, drum-machines and so on. I may allow myself to use a bit of guitar-synth, but as far as possible, it’s guitars-only for FAWM this year!

So, I’m not sure quite how FAWM will work out in 2015, but then again, that’s more or less how I felt the two previous years, and they didn’t come out too badly… If you’d like to keep up with my progress, you can follow along via my FAWM artist page, and I’ll be posting updates to my Twitter feed and my Facebook “artist page” (“Like” me! 😉 ), with links to the new songs and demos. Hope to see you there…

NaSoAlMo 2014: the “de-brief”

So, the “‘Reader’s Digest’ version”: I completed NaSoAlMo 2014 (under the band-nom de plume of The Pattern Store), and the resulting album, “Moquettes”, is now available for download on Bandcamp.

Longer version: how do I feel it went?

In his sleevenotes for at least some of the mid-2000s CD reissues of his 1970s albums, singer-songwriter Peter Hammill begins his thoughts on each album with the following statement of intent:

With every album I hoped to do something new and to learn something. With every album I expected to make mistakes. Some of these. of course, were educational in nature.

Hammill then proceeds to ask himself (and answer) what those four items were for the album he is writing about. I thought I would have a go at this myself, with regard to NaSoAlMo 2014… and to my surprise, I found the four answers were quite closely intertwined.

Something New?

A “band-pseudonym”… and the constraints which accompany it.

Something Learned?

In the right scenario, an “exercise” such a “virtual band” can be rewarding and conducive to creativity.

A Mistake?

I am not now convinced, that an intensive songwriting/recording exercise like NaSoAlMo or FAWM, is the “right scenario”.

An Education?

Album “concepts” and constrained deadlines don’t mix… at least for me.

Well, there you have it in a nutshell.

On the positive side: I enjoy composing and recording, and usually find intensive songwriting challenges rewarding and involving, as well as finding that sometimes, they can generate songs and other material that might not come to exist otherwise. To an extent, this was also true of NaSoAlMo 2014, and overall I am pleased with a good part of the final output (you will be hearing some of this material again, I can reveal).

However, this particular exercise has shown me the risks of “strait-jacketing” myself into a particular musical or compositional style, especially when entering an intensive songwriting challenge. I have found that these “intensive songwriting challenges” only really work for me, if I give myself total freedom to go with whatever idea (compositional, stylistic, etc.) comes to me. Time is so constrained in these challenges, that I simply cannot afford to discard any ideas or other material, just because it does not “fit” the stylistic constraint(s) I have placed upon myself for the activity. In short: if it comes to me, I just have to “run with it”.

So, summing up: whilst overall I am quite pleased with “Moquettes”, I think that it succeeded almost in spite of the “virtual band” concept. Let me be clear: I feel my idea of a “band identity” orientated towards 60s-influenced, guitar-based “psych-pop” with an English flavour, leavened with what I’d call “anachronistic elements” (non-60s electronica, etc.), is a sound one.

One day, I’d love to make another Pattern Store album, which would be much closer to the original “vision” I have of the “band”, than I was able to produce within the extreme time-constraints of NaSoAlMo. The album “Moquettes”, I think, has ended up being a “fusion” of what The Pattern Store “should” sound like, and the kind of work I would produce under my own name for an intensive songwriting challenge.

However, when all is said, done, etc.: I think “Moquettes” is a rather good effort (if I say so myself), so do feel free to go and grab your download now 🙂